23 June 2021, The Tablet

The philosophy of being good

The philosophy of being good

Iris Murdoch, left, and Simone Weil
Photos: Alamy


Both the Anglo-Irish novelist Iris Murdoch and the French mystic Simone Weil had the idea of the ‘good’ at the centre of their philosophy – and both tried to resolve the tension between thinking and ‘doing’ in their own way

“Have I come to the end of the path which started many years ago when I first read Simone Weil and saw a far-off light in the forest?” In this journal entry from 1968, Iris Murdoch harkened back to the war years when, as a philosophy student at Oxford, she first discovered Weil’s writings.

By the end of the decade, when she had become one of Oxford’s youngest dons and was on the verge of becoming one of Britain’s most promising writers, Murdoch began to introduce Weil’s works to British readers. She also drew Weil into her own reflections on the nature of the moral life – a life that, as she wrote many years later, needed to be inhabited by the thinker.

Simone Weil, who died at the age of 34 during the Second World War while a member of the Free French resistance movement in the UK, was one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable thinkers, a philosopher who truly lived by her political and ethical ideals. Weil’s biographers tend to sum up her life as a series of contradictions. She was an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals; she was a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War; she was a saint who refused baptism; a mystic who was a labour militant; a French Jew who was buried in the small Catholic section of a cemetery in Ashford, Kent; a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem; the most wilful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self …

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